A Straight Dope Classic from Cecil's Storehouse of Human Knowledge

Why water won't help after eating spicy hot food

July 8, 1983

Dear Cecil:

Why doesn't water work to soothe your mouth after eating spicy hot Chinese, Indian, Mexican, etc., foods? Is it true that water actually makes the burning sensation worse? What, if anything, does work?

Cecil replies:

If you had been paying attention in sixth-grade science class like you should've, Bobo, you would already know the answer to this question, which can be summed up thusly: oil and water don't mix. The fiery spices in the foods you mention are oil-based, and thus mix readily with the cooking oil and/or natural juices the food simmers in. When you eat the stuff, the oil coats your tongue and throat, and for complicated molecular reasons that we need not discuss right here, repels all efforts to wash it down with water. Water doesn't actually make the burning sensation worse, but by eliminating other distracting tastes I suppose we might say it purifies the agony.

So what does work? Logic would suggest two approaches: dilutants (more oil) and solvents (such as alcohol). Best dilutant I know of is milk, which generally works like a charm. If that's not macho enough for you, you can try an alcoholic beverage appropriate to the occasion. A shot of tequila, for instance, in a Mexican restaurant. Then again, you may feel that the cure is worse than the disease. Some people swear by bread or, better yet, a flour tortilla. These sop up the oil and carry it away. Clearly this is an empirical process, and one in which all the Teeming Millions can play a part. If you've got a better idea, send it in. Sorry, no T-shirts or coffee mugs. But you'll have the satisfaction of making the world a better place.

Dear Cecil:

Anything with citric acid seems to work well for me. Orange juice is the best. --TYosh

Dear Cecil:

Best cure for hot spicy food is to sprinkle it with fresh lime or lemon juice to taste! --JOTAERE5

Dear Cecil:

Eat some SALT. Try it--works 100 times better than milk --I b coool

Cecil replies:

OK, so we've got milk, bread, salt, orange or lemon juice, and tequila. Try 'em all. Something's bound to work. I should tell you that I personally am partial to the tequila approach, consumed in the form of a margarita or two. I figure this gives you a couple shots at solving the problem. First, as previously indicated, tequila is a solvent. But if that doesn't work, let's face it, the stuff still makes a pretty good general anesthetic.

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